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What are some common Ecolabels?

Updated on April 10, 2012

What does that label mean?

Eco-labels are meant to help the consumer choose foods (or other products) that meet certain standards. A good eco-label will have specific and selective requirements and be third party certified. Don’t be duped by some weak or misleading labels that sound good but really have no backing to them. This is merely greenwashing, the using of a sustainable appearance to lure consumers into thinking they’re doing good for the planet.

Greenwashing labels - don't be duped!

Natural. Any product can put on its package that it is ‘Natural’ or contains ‘All natural ingredients.’ This label has no legal backing and is not vetted or regulated by any party.

Cage-free, Free-Range, and Pasture Raised . While these are all important concepts, they are not regulated or verified labels. Just because eggs or poultry are marked as being ‘cage-free,’ does not mean that they have sufficient space to roam. They could still be tightly packed together in the unsanitary and inhumane conditions found in factory farms. The same is true of the label free-range ; while it may be found on beef, poultry, or eggs, the USDA only regulates the label for poultry. While it inspires the image of birds poking about in the grass, in actuality “free range” chickens may have been in the outdoors only five minutes a day in a concrete feedlot.

But don't be too jaded - the number of true eco-labels abound, and they are a useful tool! Here is an overview of a few of the more prominent ones.

Hungry for More?

To learn about more labels in greater detail, the Consumers Union has an online eco-labels guide, complete with explanations and an assessment of each label's validity.


You know this one: Organic

The USDA organic label is perhaps the most widely used food eco-label. The national standards for organic agriculture went into effect in 2002. Before that, each state was left to create their own organic standards and it got confusing. Organic farms are prohibited from using synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, or sewage sludge and organic products cannot contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or be irradiated (exposed to radiation to kill microbes and bacteria). Products with the organic seal must contain a minimum of 95% organic ingredients. Other labels you might see are “100% organic” or “Made with organic ingredients” which means that at least 70% of its ingredients must be organic.

When you see the organic label on meat it means that the animal was fed with organic feed and not given growth hormones or antibiotics unnecessarily.


Fair Trade for better chocolate!

The Fair Trade label is an international standard that identifies socially and environmentally responsible agriculture, particularly in developing countries. It ensures that fair prices were paid to farmers, harmful pesticide use was limited and organic techniques were favored. You will most likely see this label on coffee, tea, fruit, nuts, and chocolate.



This label suggests that the livestock (usually beef or lamb) was fed grass and allowed to graze (the way they evolved to eat!). However, this label has not been third party certified and thus is less trustworthy unless it is accompanied with the USDA Process-Verified shield.

The group Eat Wild has put together a directory for finding pasture-raised meat sources near you.


Animal Welfare Approved (humanity left intact)

This label can only be used on food grown by family farmers or co-operative farms. Animals must have access to pasture (grassland). Animals cannot be fed growth promoters or unnecessary antibiotics, and must not be physically or psychologically mistreated.

Certified Humane Raised and Handled

This label is similar to the Animal Welfare Approved label; it ensures that animals are raised and slaughtered in humane ways, are given sufficient food and water, are not fed antibiotics, and have sufficient space and outdoor time.


Rainforest Alliance Certified

Standards are set by the Sustainable Agriculture Network, and are focused on protecting tropical ecosystems where the labeled food is grown. The criteria include good water and soil conservation practices, use of integrated pest management and prohibited pesticides, and fair labor practices. Furthermore, the Rainforest Alliance has stated acommitment to fighting climate change both through sustainable forestry and agriculture certification. This label is most often found on coffee, tea, chocolate, fruit, and other beverages.

Demeter Certified Biodynamic

This is a highly holistic food label, encompassing standards in integrated pest management, animal welfare and fair labor, soil and water conservation, wildlife protection, and non-usage of GMOs. It looks at the farm as part of the larger human and natural systems, while giving each crop also its own sustainability standards. This label thus covers the whole system while giving specifics on the individual parts.

The Food Alliance label can be found on a variety of products, including meat, dairy, grains, fruits and vegetables, nuts, and even processed foods.


Bird Friendly and Shade Grown

The Bird Friendly label, most often found on coffee, tea, and chocolate, indicates that the farms from which it was sourced provides habitat for birds. This means that the farm must maintain tree canopy, sufficient shade, diverse plant life, and plant borders around streams and rivers. The Shade Grown coffee label is similar but has fewer requirements than the Bird Friendly label.

By contrast, "s un-grown" coffee is grown as a monoculture (fields filled with one crop, in this case only coffee trees), which require heavy doses of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to maintain. Shade Grown and Bird Friendly coffee is grown in organic systems that don’t use these fertilizers or pesticides. By cultivating in biodiverse agro-ecosystems we put less pressure on the land, and require fewer inputs like human labor, fertilizer/pesticides, and machinery.


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    • Tara McNerney profile imageAUTHOR

      Tara McNerney 

      6 years ago from Washington, DC

      Danette, I totally agree, it's frustrating when you're trying to do the right thing and you don't even know what that is! I think there's hope though, because it can all easily be solved by better laws, regulation, and enforcement. The will just needs to be there pushing government to act! Watergeek, I had heard of Energy Star but not Water Sense. It would be really cool to see a hub related to those types of labels and which ones are the best!

    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 

      6 years ago from Illinois

      Tara, I'm not sure how I missed this hub but I followed through one of your others. I enjoyed reading this informative piece on ecolabels. It's something most people are confused about (including me at times) because we want to do the right thing and may get inadvertently sucked into thinking anything labeled "organic" or "free-range" etc is good. Voted up and interesting and useful.

    • watergeek profile image


      6 years ago from Pasadena CA

      How about Energy Star and Water Sense? They're not related to food, but are eco's. Good hub, Tara.

    • K9keystrokes profile image

      India Arnold 

      6 years ago from Northern, California

      Nice tell-all hub, Tara! I learned quite a bit reading this. The "free-range" label is the one I found most telling!

      Nice job.


    • moonlake profile image


      6 years ago from America

      I didn't know all of this. Great information. Your right just because the label says cage-free doesn't mean their out roaming the fields happy and free. Their in big chicken houses they aren't cages but their packed in and can barely move and all they have is dirt and poo from other chickens to walk on.

      Great hub....Voted up.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      Bird friendly? Demeter certified biodynamic? Certified humane raised and handled? Wow! There are so many eco-labels that I had never heard of! This is fascinating. Thanks for sharing the great overview! I'm quite tempted to tromp over to Whole Foods and have a scavenger hunt for these. That'd be fun!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Wow! This is a great hub packed full of useful information. We are trying to live more eco friendly and also eat more organic less processed foods. Voted up and useful and shared!


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